The Black Skeptics of Los Angeles met recently to discuss directions for the new year. The group meets monthly and is comprised of a diverse swath of black Angeleno freethinkers concerned about social justice, civil rights, community organizing, and black cultural identity. As part of its outreach to the local African American religious community, the group will sponsor an interfaith dialogue with Zion Hill Baptist Church in South Los Angeles on April 20th. The dialogue will spotlight black humanist, atheist, and freethought traditions in contemporary African American culture, allow black freethinkers to talk about their lives as humanists/atheists, and debunk myths and stereotypes black believers have about non-theist belief systems. According to Zion Hill Pastor Seth Pickens, the dialogue is the first of its kind in the church’s history. Like many churches in South L.A., Zion Hill is located in a predominantly African American neighborhood, but had an all-white congregation up until the dismantling of restrictive covenants and ensuing white flight in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The dialogue is the first of a series in ongoing outreach to build community by educating and engaging African Americans about the social history of black freethought traditions and the cultural relevance of humanism to social and economic justice.
Donald Wright is a Houston-based freethought activist and the author of The Only Prayer I’ll Ever Pray: Let My People Go.
In recognition of the seminal yet historically overlooked impact of black freethought traditions, he has proposed the fourth Sunday in February as a “Day of Solidarity” for African American freethinkers, humanists, and atheists.
You were once a deacon and devoted member of your church. What was the catalyst for your journey to non-theism?
If I include being born into a Christian family, I have over 50 years of experience of being involved in religion. My parents and sisters were active members of a Christian church so I followed in their footsteps. Aside from the five years of college, which I did continue attending church especially since I wanted to maintain a relationship with my church going college sweetheart, I had been an active and devoted church member until September 2006. My church activities included: Sunday school, choir, usher, youth groups, fundraising committees, co-leader with my wife of new members’ orientation, and being a deacon.
To describe the catalyst for my journey to non-theism, I must provide some background information that represents my church/religious experiences. There is not a shortage of malfeasance among black church pastors and leaders. The claim against Eddie Long in Atlanta, Georgia, is a well publicized example. Describe it as naïve, but I expected pastors, men called by God, to be of higher character and dedication to the instructions of the Bible. Not that they don’t exist, but I had not been a member of a church with a female pastor so pardon my gender reference. I assumed that the God-calling provided a spiritual strength, humility, and godly insight that was unavailable to normal everyday Christians. A pastor’s inappropriate behavior was very disturbing to me and it was amplified when he lacked a display of remorse. To add to my discomfort, majority of the members were too tolerable and readily to forgive. I can’t count the number of times I heard “the pastor is just a man” as a reason to not demand accountability. Most pastors are arrogant and demand a stature position that requires hero worship and most members in black churches accommodate.
I was a member of this pre-dominantly black mega-church in Houston for 19 years. It was the church where I was a deacon. In 2003, the pastor’s involvement in a homosexual scandal was exposed. It found its way into the local and national media. The pastor was portraying a happy heterosexual marriage. This was devastating to the membership. A special meeting was held to determine his fate. The membership voted and by a small margin, the majority preferred him to remain as pastor with the condition that he would agree to counseling.
Our family was not alone in leaving, as a substantial number of members immediately chose to find another church. This situation was very disturbing because within two years the church membership decreased well over 50%. Homosexuality is a major theological challenge for most Christians and obviously I did not accept it as a lifestyle choice for a church leader.
This incident was the catalyst. Following the decision to find another church, I committed to becoming a greater student of the Bible and the religious practice of Christianity. I was no longer going to be dependent on the preachers and anointed Bible teachers for interpretation and instructions. The next two years involved intense self-study in addition to enrollment in a local Bible college to obtain a Bible teaching certificate. Some family members and friends suggested I was being called to the ministry. The study required me to ask hard and challenging questions. It required me to pursue the history and origin of the Bible. It led me to observing clear contradictions in Bible. Eventually I would find my way to reading the Age of Reason by Thomas Paine and in September 2006 my religious journey was terminated. Self-study led me away from religion and into a life-stance centered on Humanism and Atheism. I am glad I finally decided to scholarly study the Bible.
What kinds of advocacy work do you do around humanism/atheism in the Houston community?
I am an active member of the Humanists of Houston organization, currently serving as vice-president. The intent of my involvement with this group, in addition to the benefits of being among more like-minded individuals, is to encourage more community service and outreach as humanists. We must become more visible in the community to offset the service provided by religious organizations. Our society needs to learn that it is not religion that gives people the desire to help and care for others.
Also, I have organized a discussion group, Radical Forum – Houston. The group assembles monthly to examine various topics and issues through an open dialogue. The group decides the topic or issue and a volunteer will lead the discussion. The primary objective of the group is to promote a better society and lessen human oppression and exploitation. The forum serves to motivate and to be an intellectual resource. Our society cannot change until people change. People cannot change until their thinking change. Thoughts and attitudes are modified through new information. My individual responsibility is to make certain that the information shared during the discussion is tested through humanistic values and examined from a non-religious perspective.
How has your involvement in the emerging community of black non-believers changed your outlook on life?
My outlook on life began to change a few years before my escape from religion. Although I did not recognize this immediately, but the start of my new worldview was when I started my engineering consulting firm in January 2002. I discovered a freedom that transcends monetary wealth. I had acquired major control of my time and priorities. I can determine what truly is important. At this time my daughter was a sophomore in high school. I cannot explain the joy of attending her basketball games in the middle of the afternoon without having to get permission from the boss. She still treasures her feeling of knowing her dad was in the stands for the majority of games cheering for her and the team. I learned to value that experience more than the acquisition of a lot of money. My business objective was then and remains to keep it small but adequate. I was beginning to reject some of the ideals of corporate America and the capitalistic influence.
During the past nine years, my worldview on religion, politics, government, capitalism, our monetary system, health, and many other subjects has significantly altered. I have read more books, asked more hard questions, shared conversation with more extraordinary and brilliant people, and studied diligently to determine truth. The function of truth is to bring light to the hidden facts. Truth transforms humans only when we submit to it. Humans who seek truth cannot resist the need to transform. I may have to write another book to describe my reasons for becoming disenchanted with life in the United States.
Attending the African American for Humanism Conference, sponsored by Center for Inquiry, in Washington, D.C. in May last year was a huge impact. I have a photo of the group framed and mounted on my office wall. It was a historical event because it was the first major gathering of black non-believers in the Unites States. I met and established relationships with many other black non-believers from various cities across the country. I anticipate many of those relationships to solidify and last for a lifetime. There was so much comfort in sharing experiences and similar journeys. It was so surprising to hear the stories of individuals that had started their journey during their youth. Some of the individuals at this conference will be very influential in the humanist movement. My perspective on humanism and its place in the black community was broadened. I have more confidence and greater hope for the black community that it will lessen its dependence on religion. I look forward to the future for attending the first major gathering of black non-believers here in Houston, Texas.
What do you think are the main priorities for black non-believers?
The most important activity for a black non-believer is to make yourself available for establishing a friendship with other black non-believers. Because of the dominance of religion in our community, it is not unusual to experience a feeling of loneliness so a local friend is invaluable. Emails, Facebook, Twitter, and blogging cannot replace face to face communication. In preparation for befriending a fellow black non-believer, be certain you care enough to share your experiences and offer genuine support.
The next priority is to develop boldness in purpose because the religious institutions must be challenged. Their negative influence on our society must be exposed. When faith is tested through facts, logic, reason, or science it should fail. In preparation to confront believers, you must be solidly grounded in this life-stance and confident enough to discuss it with anyone interested in a conversation. As non-believers, we must become more visible and our voices heard. As non-believers, we offer an alternative that could make substantial improvements in our society and our community must know that we exist.
Also, we must participate with national humanist and atheist organizations to offer support as these organizations are confronting policies through the political process. The religious landscape of the United States must be removed and replaced with reason and free thought.
To my fellow black non-believers, I suggest sharing knowledge and speaking truth without any fear. Human attitudes, opinions, and behavior can be modified. A believer can become a non-believer. I am that example.
In your book, you talk about black male ambivalence toward the culture of charismatic male leadership in the Black Church. Does this ambivalence keep men away from the church and how does it encourage emotional/sexual abuse and co-dependency amongst women?
I will address the latter part of the question first.
I am almost certain that the majority of pastors in the black church are men. I have the same certainty that the majority of the members of black churches are women, which means they have the greater number in church service attendance and participation in church activities. Because of this dynamic, the pastors must cater primarily to the needs of the women. Black women are achieving more independence and earning larger incomes as professionals and business owners than ever before. Many have moved from the kitchen to the boardroom and their monetary contributions reflect this status. But note that surveys indicate that the largest segment of people that is religious and unmarried is black women. They love the church and adore the pastor especially the singles. This environment creates a playground for the unscrupulous men with charisma, authority, and fine tailored suits. These men have become celebrities and as a result of our society’s celebrity culture, many women become victims emotionally and sexually. What can be more problematic than a single woman seeking counsel and prayer for finding a husband or a companion in the dim lights of the pastor’s study? If they only knew that their best chance for a qualified mate is not in the church. Too many black women depend on and seek solace from the church.
A large percentage of black men struggle with the desire to attend church—simultaneously they lack the interest in supporting the pastor. In the black community the pastor is the church. It is not uncommon to hear a member say, “I attend Pastor XYZ’s church.” This group of struggling black men recognize these selfish and manipulative characteristics in preachers because of their own experiences and characteristics, making it difficult to ignore the negative possibilities. These negative possibilities include improper management of the building fund to justify a new car or receiving sexual pleasure from a distraught woman that attempts to show her gratitude to the pastor for paying her electric bill. In street language they see him the same as the “pimp” or “player.” The pimp controls and the player attracts. The need to attend church is ingrained in black culture. Most black men accept this as vital and prefer not to risk their soul’s salvation, but their social instincts alert them to [the pastor’s] con artist[istry]. They cannot ignore this alert so many of them stay away from church choosing instead to read the Bible and listen to gospel music on Sundays. Well, maybe not every Sunday.
You recently proposed a “Day of Solidarity” for African American non-believers. What was the motivation for this initiative?
The idea of a Day of Solidarity occurred as a result of me pondering Black History Month with more focus on black free thinkers and non-believers. I felt that an effort should be given to assemble black non-believers in our local towns and cities eliminating the need for expensive travel. I visualized a special day of observance once a year on the 4th Sunday in February to promote fellowship, share experiences, meet new non-believers, and discuss the lives of black non-believers that our typical history books omit. Also, this could be the opportunity to encourage community activism. The gathering is to be provided with minimum requirements and cost. Two or more people could meet in the park if the weather permits.
I was really hoping the fellowship would be the attracting piece in the purpose for the gathering. Since the beginning of my journey away from religion in 2006, I desperately needed and still need to meet more black non-believers. Fellowship, a sustaining characteristic of the church, is valuable in our society regardless of the group’s purpose. We need each other. Our technological advancements allow us to communicate with many people around the world, sharing information at the click of a button. We are meeting and making new friends online everyday. But no technology can replace the need for human interaction, face to face, the look into another person eyes during the moment of a true passionate expression, or the sight of sharing a gut wrenching laugh. We still need a hug or a little rub on the back when times get tough. Communicating through emails, Facebook, Twitter, and blogging can’t tell the whole human story.
So far, the response has been a little disappointing. It has caused me to reflect on what it takes to get people to support a cause. Our society needs so many positive actions to offset the decay and turmoil. In our celebrity culture, in order to initiate a peoples’ movement do you have to be a celebrity? Would the idea been received with greater interest if it was presented by someone such as Tavis Smiley? I was baffled by a number of people in particular that chose not to offer a simple comment, for or against the idea. For new ideas, criticisms can be a benefit. But I’ll be fine. I have no interest in becoming a celebrity. I’m only trying to make a contribution before my days are done.
I am hopeful that the gathering is received in truth and for its intent. So get from behind those computers and build solidarity with your fellow non-believers.
Many women of color and some men of color embrace humanism/atheism as part of a feminist and anti-heterosexist world view. What is your perspective on the relationship between gender equity and humanism/atheism? What specifically can black men do to advance gender justice?
The significant phase of my transformation was when I began to truly embrace humanism and atheism. Being humanist is much more relevant than being an atheist. An atheist simply is an individual that do not believe in a god. I don’t believe in a god because I don’t have to. I do not have enough evidence that proves a god exists. I am a humanist because I support the betterment of all humans and sustaining their innate ability to make rational decisions regarding life. I support peace and harmony in the universe and maintaining its natural order and resources. Humanism is my fundamental worldview. It is the guiding principle by which I use to take a position on all issues affecting our society. Humanism is tolerant and respects individuality. Humanism is fairness and strives for truth. I can’t be a humanist and support or practice any organized religion that exists in our world today according to my awareness. Religion is in opposition to humanism and most religions encourage the recognition of some type of god.
I hope to witness an overwhelming increase of blacks in the United States that make a rational decision to move away from religion and choose to embrace humanism.
In terms of gender equity, I think humanism is the means to assure its existence. There is overwhelming evidence of how religions, particularly the most dominant ones here in the United States, promote gender inequality with men being in positions of authority. The Bible is a collection of this ideology. Women recognized this fallacy and demanded a different society that acknowledges the rights of women, which is evident today, but some remain in bondage to their religious dogma and continue to be subjugated to a fictitious role. Our society fails, primarily due to religion, in the attempt to identify the roles of women and men and many of us become deranged in the struggle for adherence. We should allow science to help us to understand the true natural differences between women and men, then as individuals we determine our role as we adapt to our society. We should learn and understand personalities and weigh the factors that shape our character. This is especially significant when we are developing relationships or partnerships, more commonly known as marriage, with other humans. Religion distorts this concept also. Who should determine the make-up of the partnership and head of the household or the need for one, the church, Paul the self-proclaimed apostle, or the individuals involved? Humanism is not about defining gender or sexual orientation; it is systematic in determining what’s best for human beings.
For black men to advance gender justice, my primary suggestion is stay away from religion. Free your mind from the bondage of religious dogma. Become a free thinking individual. Black men must understand that gender injustice is a human malfunction just like racism. Our community cannot afford this behavior. Black men must relinquish this misguided attitude of the male authoritative perspective as practiced in the black church. Appreciate the qualities and skills of our black women equally without restrictions. We need each other operating at its highest efficiency to promote an equitable society. Human injustice, oppression and exploitation are inefficient.
Contact Donald Wright, [email protected], www.drwrightbooks.com